The Horse Fair is an oil-on-canvas painting by French artist Rosa Bonheur, begun in 1852 and first exhibited at the Paris Salon in 1853. The artist added some finishing touches in 1855. The large work measures 96.25 in × 199.5 in (244.5 cm × 506.7 cm).
The painting depicts dealers selling horses at the horse market held on the Boulevard de l'Hôpital in Paris. The notorious hospital of Salpêtrière can be seen in the left background.
The prime version of the painting has been in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York since 1887, when it was donated by Cornelius Vanderbilt II. It is on view in Gallery 812.
Bonheur painted The Horse Fair from a series of sketches of Percherons, and other draft horses, which she had made at the Paris horse market [fr] on the tree-lined Boulevard de l'Hôpital, near the Pitié-Salpêtrière Hospital, which is visible in the background to the painting. She attended the market twice weekly for a year and a half from summer of 1850 to the end of 1851. She sought a permission de travestissement [fr] from the Paris police to dress as a man, to avoid drawing attention to herself. She had earlier studied at a Paris slaughterhouse in 1845, a typical activity for an animal painter that she was the first woman to engage in, and had experienced harassment as a visible woman.
In addition to studies at the Paris horse market, she also modeled her animals on those from the Paris Omnibus Company. She broke from tradition in depicting the horse eye as it is, rather than using anthropomorphism for emotional effect. It has been suggested that one of the human figures is a self-portrait.
Bonheur routinely wore masculine clothes at home and in the country. The Horse Fair is printed as Plate 18 in Greer's book The Obstacle Race, in which she writes: "There was nothing titillating about the full trousers and painters' smocks that Bonheur wore", and quotes the artist herself as saying:
Among the influences on Bonheur's work are the painters George Stubbs, Théodore Géricault, and Eugène Delacroix, and sculpture from Ancient Greece. She described the painting as her own Parthenon Frieze. It is signed and dated, "Rosa Bonheur 1853.5".
The painting was praised by the critics when it was first exhibited at the Paris Salon in May 1853. Several commented on the masculine nature of the work. Earlier, Bonheur had offered studies of two paintings to French Minister of Fine Arts Charles de Morny, Duke of Morny, for consideration of a state commission. He selected the other work, Haymaking in the Auvergne, now held by the museum at the Château de Fontainebleau. Bonheur rejected his attempt to change his mind after the 1853 exhibition.
The painting was subsequently shown in Ghent in 1853 and then in Bordeaux in 1854, but the city declined to buy it for FF 15,000. It was sold to the British art dealer Ernest Gambart in 1854 for FF 40,000. Bonheur added finishing touches in 1855.
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